Critically acclaimed overseas since their debut album hit British record stores back in 1996, the occasionally turbid and consistently androgynous sounds of neo-glam trailblazers Placebo never truly caught on stateside. Despite consistent adoration from the U.K. press, the band was quick to move away from the alt-rock crush of the eponymously titled Placebo (for which the band had drawn several Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana comparisons), and instead went in the direction of a glam/punk hybrid. Always hastily walking the fine line between sublime moments of beauty and extreme provocations of lewdness, Placebo’s next four albums of razor-sharp gloom would attract many followers, David Bowie among them. In singer Brian Molko, the band had found an exotic frontman whose brash delivery and sexual frankness made headlines before the term “guy liner” had ever been entered into the pop culture lexicon.
Yet by the release of 2006’s Meds, it was clear the routine needed a good shakeup. Though Placebo impressed critics with the album’s stripped down song structures, bare emotion, and heightened sense of vulnerability, it still fared far better in Europe than it did on this side of the Atlantic. On Battle For The Sun – the band’s 6th proper studio release – there’s a newfound energy present that suggests the band is ready to once again take a crack at breaking through what seems to be an impenetrable American market. The presence of studio whiz Alan Moulder (who has done legendary work for Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode) and recently hired ace drummer Steve Forrest turns many of the album’s 13 cuts into arena ready fistpumpers. And while Molko’s probing examinations of interpersonal drama and chemical dependency remain, not even his signature nasally tone stands a chance at slowing down this collection of epics.
Ironically, the album’s first two tracks are among the weakest. Set to some uncomfortably placed handclaps and one of the group’s more jarring chord progressions, it’s easy to relate to Molko when he howls, “I need a change of skin.” Next up is “Ashtray Heart,” an uptempo cut that seems destined to become a stadium singalong despite its predictably dramatic pre-chorus buildup and a repetitious chant of the song’s title in Spanish.
After this, the horizon looks far brighter. The album’s title track shows of some great tick-tocking percussion from Placebo’s newest member and a striking chorus that is perfectly deserving of Molko’s tragic lyrics: “Dream brother / my killer / my lover.” With some twinkling keyboards and a string section, the song approaches the sort of transcendence more often associated with heartstring tuggers like Sigur Rós. With its fuzzed out bass line, horn section, and fiery groove, “For What It’s Worth” harkens back to Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55,” minus the alpha male machismo. “Devil In The Details” finds Molko once again trying to leave behind the societal ills that have long plagued him. With deft drumming from Hewitt and several swirling layers of guitar, keyboard, and background vocals, the song is another classic Placebo inquiry into the vices of temptation.
Though the band rarely strays from its trademark blend of buzzsaw guitars and thumping bass, they do show the occasional ability to push the envelope with songs like “Julien” and the substance-obsessed closer, “Kings Of Medicine.” The former lays down a minimalist groove with synth bass and four to the floor bass drum which gradually morphs into a bombastic chorus, augmented by the presence of a string section. The album’s final track begins with something not heard on the previous 12: an acoustic guitar. The subdued texture makes Molko’s pleading thoughts that much more immediate: “Don’t leave me here / my guiding light / cause I wouldn’t know where to begin / I ask the kings of medicine.” Confidently though, Placebo’s front man leads his band mates into a glorious coda (namedropping Southern Comfort along the way) complete with Coldplay-style piano countermelodies and brass harmonies. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the band’s best album since 2000’s Black Market Music.